Catherine Hamlin, Pioneering Doctor Who Treated Childbirth Injury, Dies at 96

NAIROBI, Kenya — Dr. Catherine Hamlin, an Australian obstetrician and gynecologist who devoted her life to treating Ethiopian women with a devastating childbearing injury and who was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has died at her home in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. She was 96.

Her death on Wednesday was announced by the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation in Sydney, Australia, an independent charity she co-founded.

Dr. Hamlin first arrived in Ethiopia with her husband, Reginald Hamlin, in 1959 in response to an advertisement to work as a gynecologist at a hospital in Addis Ababa. But what started as a three-year stint turned into a six-decade-long mission that saw the two doctors working closely with women who had the childbearing injury known as obstetric fistula.

The condition is caused when prolonged labor opens a hole in the birth canal that leaves many women incontinent. For Ethiopian woman, the injury often led to their being rejected by their husbands and ostracized by their communities.

When Dr. Hamlin and her husband arrived in Ethiopia, there was little to no treatment available for such patients anywhere in the country. Poring through medical books, journals and drawings of operations by other experts, the two developed pioneering surgical techniques that are still used in hospitals today.

“We started with small fistulas, which any gynecologist can fix without much training, and gradually tackled more difficult ones,” Dr. Hamlin said in an interview in 2013.

In 2018, the World Health Organization estimated that more than two million young women lived with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

After performing surgery to repair injuries for many years in Ethiopian hospitals, Dr. Hamlin and her husband built the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974 amid the Communist revolution. The two also established a network of clinics and hospitals across the country that has provided reconstructive surgery to more than 60,000 Ethiopian women to date, according to her foundation.

“This news breaks my heart,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization and a former health minister of Ethiopia, said on Twitter about her death. “You were the best of humanity & very special. We all must continue carrying your mission forward.”

Elinor Catherine Nicholson was born on Jan. 24, 1924, in Sydney. One of six children, she graduated from the University of Sydney School of Medicine in 1946. She met Reginald Hamlin while working as a resident in the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney.

Twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Catherine Hamlin won the Right Livelihood Award in 2009, an international honor given annually to those providing solutions to the most urgent problems facing humanity. In 2012, the government in Ethiopia awarded her honorary citizenship in recognition of her dedication to the country’s people.

In 2014, she told The New York Times, “We’re trying to prevent these injuries and wake up the world.”

At her 90th birthday party in Addis Ababa, her son, Richard, referring to her patients, said: “Catherine has one son and 35,000 daughters.”

In addition to her son, Dr. Hamlin is survived by her sister, Ailsa Pottie; brothers, Donald and Jock Nicholson; and four grandchildren.

Last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia inaugurated a statue of her and her husband, who died in 1993, at the hospital they co-founded in Addis Ababa.

On Thursday, Mr. Abiy said, “Ethiopia lost a true gem who dedicated more than sixty years to restoring the dignity of thousands of women.”

At her birthday party, Dr. Hamlin spoke about the need to improve the world’s maternal care, saying: “We have to eradicate Ethiopia of this awful thing that’s happening to women: suffering, untold suffering, in the countryside. I leave this with you to do in the future, to carry on.”

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